Four Times the Temptation
May 12, 1825
The first ball and house party held at Selbourne Castle.
Jeanie stepped into the King’s Hall and her breathing hitched. She’d never seen it so lovely, so…alive. Golden light from hundreds of candles glowed in every corner and crevasse of the intricately carved ceiling. Her ears rang with the warbled music of chatter, new people she’d yet to meet. She’d spent the past eleven days attending a house party with gentlemen she’d never met before and couldn’t bring herself to speak to.
She was rushed forward by the current of her sisters as they moved en masse to greet their host, the Duchess of Selbourne. But Jeanie couldn’t focus on any one thing. Her eyes danced from person to person, attired in clothing more elegant than she’d imagine. She swallowed, peering down at her own simple muslin dress, it’s only evening occasion adornment, a pretty yellow ribbon she’d tied around her waist under the bodice and the sprigs of yellow gorse blossoms she’d tucked into the curls on her head.
She craned her neck as they passed a woman with ropes of diamonds around her neck, and Jeanie had to be yanked back to reality by her sister, Georgie.
“Did you see that?” Jeanie whispered. She couldn’t believe a person would walk around with a fortune in jewels around her neck. But everywhere she looked, women sparkled with gems. Jeanie hugged Georgie’s arm, feeling so absent of such finery. She was as plain as a little fluff of cotton that could flatten away. She wanted to cover her neck, but she had nothing do so, not even a fan.
“I…don’t think we belong here,” she whispered.
Georgie scoffed. “We were invited by the duchess, therefore we belong. Don’t compare yourself to these people.”
“How can I not?”
“None of them knows you. None of them has the pleasure of being your sister. They are lacking already.”
Jeanie bit her lip. “Thank you.”
“You are welcome, but please stop hanging on my arm. You’re pulling my dress down.”
“Oh.” Jeanie let go. “I’m sorry.”
“Do try to relax. They may wear fine things, but we needn’t impress them. We’re the Northumberland Nine, so they’re already impressed. That is why they call us infamous.”
They’d reached the duchess and now waited to greet her.
“You all look so lovely. I’m so happy you could come to the ball. I believe this is your first?”
The sisters nodded as the duchess regarded them with a smile.
“Excellent. You will have a marvelous time. You have your dance cards, yes? Come this way and we shall fill them with gentlemen.” Jeanie shared a glance with Georgie, her nerves stretched taught, but she was more excited than she’d ever been.
Her first ball.
She couldn’t stop the drumming of her heart as they mixed with another group, the duchess leading them like little soldiers into battle. She’d fantasized about this night for weeks now, imagining how her life could change.
This was the closest she would ever get to a coming out ball. The closest she’d ever be to a London season.
Before the duke died, they hadn’t been invited to the castle. He’d made it clear he wanted nothing to do with his poor country neighbors. But when he was gone, his mother, the duchess would visit them and bring gifts. Jam, a leg of lamb, or a strip of yellow ribbon, Jeanie’s favorite color, for her birthday. She’d taken to inviting them to weekly teas at the castle and allowing them to borrow books from the library, but that was only in the last year.
But none of those occasions had prepared her for this event.
Jeanie took a deep breath, running her hand along the smooth silk of the ribbon.
I can do this.
The duchess began introductions with the oldest of her sisters, Annette then Bernadette, Georgette, Jeanette, Josette, Lunette, Nicolette, Odette, and Willette to the guests who’d come for the ball but not the full house party.
The expressions of the group before them lit up. Jeanie cocked her head. Perhaps they really were infamous?
She scanned the group of gentlemen and ladies, dazzled by all of them. Their attire and manners so fine she felt like a goat in a dress by comparison. Her attention caught on one man, and her breathing hitched. Her wits scattered like stars across the sky.
Lord Luckfeld was dressed in evening blacks and he was just…different. He’d been present for the whole house party, but he seemed to always be missing when she was present after a very brief introduction at the start of the party.
His dark brown hair gleamed in the candle light like decadent chocolate. His piercing pale blue eyes surveyed the people around him, glittering with amusement and a touch of cynicism. He had angular cheek bones and a narrow nose, but the austerity of those features were softened by his rounded chin and wide mouth, the top lip narrower, the bottom lip full. Easy to smile, she would say his mouth was, but she didn’t know anything about him except that he was startlingly beautiful. The most handsome man she’d even seen.
And that meant something because she’d grown up next to the present duke and his brother, Weirick and Roderick Andrews, who were known for their male beauty.
But this man before her, he was exactly what she would dream a London gentleman looked like. His evening entire, solid black with a stark white cravat, was so perfectly fitted it could have been sewn to him.
His gaze met hers and Jeanie couldn’t look away.
She was caught staring, transfixed.
Heat swallowed her, her skin blazing in a fiery blush.
Her lungs burned.
Had she been breathing? She couldn’t remember.
She panicked and melted into the wall of her sisters, stepping behind Anne and wishing the stone floor would open and engulf her.
She fanned herself with her hand and searched for the refreshment table. She peeked past Anne but could no longer see the gentleman. She hadn’t even heard his name. Her ears buzzed with noise, but nothing made sense.
Oh, God. I can’t do this.
She slipped away, finding the edge of the room, the cool stone reassuring at her back. She skirted the edges until she reached a table with lemon water, punch, and flutes of champagne.
What she really needed was one of Luna’s herbal teas, but given the fever wracking her body, she accepted a chilled lemon water and gulped it down. She wanted to rub the cool glass against her forehead but refrained.
Her wits returned, but the thought of venturing back into the crowd, where she might fumble and embarrass herself again, made her knees wobble.
So she was a wallflower.
Her whole life she’d looked forward to her first ball, her first dance with a person other than her sister or father.
And she couldn’t even manage to stand in the presence of a handsome gentleman.
Defeated, Jeanie recessed further from the room, wandering into the Queen’s drawing room that was only separated from the King’s Hall by a huge archway. From there, she slinked toward the doors leading away from the ball.
Full retreat, as Josie would say. She’d read too many military campaign biographies. She tended to speak in quotes now.
And yet, she was still at the ball, able to keep her wits about her.
Jeanie stepped outside, the cool moist air bathing her cheeks. She took a deep breath.
Alone now, she slumped against the wall, closing her eyes.
Why did she ever think she could do this?
She’d only dreamed of attending a ball and yet she couldn’t even speak.
How would she dance?
She looked down at her hand.
She’s forgotten about her dance card.
She had no partners for the dances. Not that it mattered, given she couldn’t manage to speak, let alone dance.
She was a dismal failure.
All her hopes for the evening, the fantasies she’d clung to at night, gone, ashes in the wind.
She was a fool to even think a girl like her, whose only skill was with a thread and needle, could rub elbows with London elite.
Who was she kidding? She was poor gentry.
She could go on and on about all the reasons why she should never had expected to fit in at this ball and—
She froze. She door jiggled behind her.
She leapt to the side and skirted off the terrace to the tier below, dipping out of sight beneath the balustrade just as the door opened.
“The door sticks,” a man said. “I’ll tell Selbourne he’s letting the castle fall to ruin.”
“And I’ll bear witness to your murder,” another man said.
They chuckled. She could hear them coming toward her by the scuff of their boots on the stone terrace. She sunk in between two potted plants and squatted between them so their ferns would cover her.
They stopped right above her.
Her heart pounded so hard it must be audible to them. It certainly drowned out all other sound from her ears. She pressed a hand over her chest as if she could muffle the drumming.
A plume of pungent smoke filled the air.
She pinched her nose. She hated cigar smoke. Her father’s always made her sneeze but by the sixth female child, Luna, those were a luxury he could no longer afford.
The gentlemen talked about nothing and soon Jeanie was able to relax. She sat on her heels, resigned to waiting until they left instead of embarrassing herself further. She hugged her knees, berating her idiocy for running outside on a spring night without a shawl.
“Did you see the nine sisters?” Man One asked. His voice was pleasing and youthful. She imagined him to have light brown hair and a boyish face, silly though that was. She peered up, but they were out of sight. All she could see was the toe of a boot just above her, resting on the footing of the balustrade.
“Of course, I’ve been staying here for a week and a half with them.”
Jeanie froze, bracing her hands against the wall to see which of the gentlemen was talking. Between the roar of her pulse in her ears, the crashing of the waves against the bluff below, and the wind that carried their voices away, she couldn’t recognize him. His voice was deeper but not overly so. More mature, a bit mysterious and… She tried to think of a word. Suave? There was something familiar about it. His voice made her think of rich textures like velvet or cashmere. She wanted to wrap herself in it.
“Andrews has told me of them before, but this is the first time I’ve seen them,” the younger man said. She was sure he wasn’t one the house party guests.
“Surprising, isn’t it?”
“Remarkably,” Man One said. “When I think of poor gentry, I think of thick women with rough hands.”
Man Two chuckled. “A dairyman’s wife?”
“Exactly. Did you speak to any of them? Are they educated?”
“Of course, I’ve been having breakfast with them every morning. Are you interested?” Man Two asked, his voice tinged with amusement. “They all need to marry.”
The younger man scoffed. “Marriage? I’ve set my sights higher. But you have to admit they’d make good mistress material. Beautiful and cheap. Unlike Clarissa Clemenson. She expects a diamond with every offer, before she’ll even consider a new protector.”
Man Two laughed, but there was hard edge to it. “You’re just a pup, Reggie. Why are you concerned with keeping a mistress at your age?”
Jeanie didn’t hear Reggie’s murmured response.
She clenched her teeth together. Mistress material, were they? She huffed in anger and then held her breath. Cigar smoke filled her nostrils.
Her nose began to tickle.
“Why don’t you return? I’m going to finish my cigar,” Man Two said.
Jeanie wiggled her nose and then she rubbed it, but the nuisance tickle would not go away.
She was going to sneeze.
Jeanie peered up and the boot was gone. She could not see or hear either man. Had they gone?
On her hands and knees, she crept out from between the palms to sneak away.
The sneeze came upon her so suddenly she didn’t have time to cover her mouth.
Through the curtain of her curls, two boots stepped into her periphery, and then the man squatted beside her, holding out a handkerchief.
Jeanie sighed, keeping her gaze on her hands. There was no use trying to pretend any of this wasn’t humiliating or odd.
What else would he expect from “poor gentry”?
She accepted the handkerchief. “Thank you.” She dabbed at her nose.
She sat back on her heels and brushed her curls back. She loathed her naturally curly hair. It never wanted to stay in place with pins.
Now she had to acknowledge him. She looked up at him as she handed his handkerchief back.
“Tha—” Her throat closed around the rest of the word.
Lord Lucian Edward, Viscount Luckfeld, or Luc, she’d heard his friends refer to him.
His chocolate hair was now velvety black in the weak light of the moon. His eyes glowed silver. But he was unmistakable. She recognized him as the same man who had mostly ignored her for the past eleven days, but tonight he’d added another layer of polish to his exterior and now he was… stunning, she grudgingly admitted.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
She shook her head, her breaths coming in short pants.
He still held his hand out so she took it, and they stood, facing each other.
“I apologize if I am somehow responsible for your—er—circumstances here.”
Oh, so he knew he struck women dumb with his face.
Curse her stupid tongue.
She blushed, but hopefully he couldn’t see in the waning light. The clouds were growing thicker overhead, the moonlight disappearing.
“May I escort you back inside?”
She glanced toward the terrace doors.
“Unless you’d rather stay out here.”
“I would,” she said, surprised the words had come out at all, and then together in one coherent two-word sentence. “You don’t have to stay with me.”
Seven whole words!
She chewed the corner of her lip.
His lips twitched. “I shouldn’t leave you out here. It wouldn’t be gentlemanly.”
Jeanie dusted her gloves on her skirts. She didn’t have a remark for that.
He presented his arm. “Let’s enjoy the night air before the storm comes, shall we? And then we’ll return to the ball. We haven’t had much of a chance to talk during the house party.”
You’ve ignored me.
“No, my lord.”
He turned them toward the next tier down, farther out of sight of the terrace.
She shivered, the cool air permeating her cotton dress, but she was used to the cold here in Northumberland. Peeking out toward the sea, she knew it would only be minutes before the rain arrived. The wind was already picking up.
She sucked in her breath. “Yes?”
“I didn’t have a chance to put my name on your dance card earlier.
“I…I was very thirsty.”
“Do you intend to dance tonight?”
Jeanie shook her head.
“No?” he sounded shocked. “’Tis your first ball, is it not?”
“How did you know that?”
“Her Grace said something to that effect.”
“Oh, well, she is right. But I don’t intend to dance. I—I can’t dance.”
“You never learned?”
“I did, but it was with my sisters and I’ll embarrass myself more, if you could believe it.”
He chuckled. “You don’t know that.”
“I do. I’ve been embarrassing myself all night. I don’t belong here. A house party is one thing. Teas, charades, long walks, I can do those things but a ball? I’m not cut out for that life, I now realize.”
They had reached the bottom terrace. They were completely out of sight of the castle if they stood near the wall.
Jeanie’s nerves danced. A smattering of light drops touching her skin.
But it still wasn’t raining, not yet.
“I like the flowers in your hair,” he said, not commenting on her forlorn conclusion about herself. How polite of him.
She touched her curls. They must look terrible now, falling all over the place. She’d have to go straight to the retiring room. Or better yet. Walk home.
“Thank you. But I think I should go.”
“I can’t let you.”
“I can’t let you leave without at least one dance. What sort of gentleman would I be? Everyone should enjoy their first ball.”
She tried not to look at him, didn’t want to see her pitiful disposition reflected in his expression. It was sad enough that after eleven days sharing the same roof, this was their first conversation.
“My lord…” She sighed and peeked up at him. He stole her breath. His eyes shimmered like moonlight on water. Her mouth dried up and she forgot what she was about to say.
“I hope you did not hear what Mr. Reginald said?”
Reggie. Man One, pleasant youthful voice.
He sighed. “I can see you did.”
“I wasn’t eavesdropping,” she hurried to say. “I just didn’t want to be seen. I was out here first, you know.”
He smiled. “I figured as much. But I don’t want you to take what he said to heart. The comment about…”
“My sisters and I being mistress material?”
He winced. “You did hear.”
Jeanie glanced toward the water. The surface undulated, rising and falling, an ocean of black ink.
“Don’t take it to heart, please,” he continued. “He’s young and…dumb.” The softness of his tone caught her attention and did strange things to her insides. She had the sensation she was sinking into quicksand, but it wasn’t at all frightening, more like, drugging. She’d once taken laudanum for a toothache and remembered the way her body had seemed heavier, and yet her head floated.
His gaze wandered over her face.
“What makes me mistress material, my lord?”
“Why did you run away earlier?”
She gulped. “You saw that?”
He grinned. “I did.”
Jeanie moaned and leaned on the balustrade, covering her face.
“I’m terrible at this.”
“What exactly is this?”
She shrugged, staring down at the waves crashing into the cliff. She should jump. It would be just as effective as the social suicide she’d already committed.
“I didn’t say I was terrible at dancing. I just don’t want to do it here.”
“I’d really love to dance with you.”
She peeked at him between her fingers. “I beg your pardon?”
“You’re a beautiful young woman. Need I say more?”
“Yes. You didn’t answer my question.”
He grimaced. “I’d rather not.”
“But I rather you did. I’m clearly not cut out to be in society. I have none of the social graces. Perhaps—”
“Don’t say it.”
She frowned. “Why not? You’re part of that social circle and you’re a man. Who is more qualified than you to determine if I’m mistress material?”
“Stop saying that phrase,” he growled. “It is not something anyone should aspire to.”
“I don’t have anything to aspire to.”
He stepped closer. “You don’t know that.”
But she did. Because she was one of nine daughters, with a father who was absent most of the year “husband hunting,” and the time he was home doing very little to manage their small plot of land. Every year things got a bit harder, their hopes for marrying smaller, the food budget just a little bit tighter. They weren’t infamous. They were a laughingstock. They were known far and wide because their father traveled England on precious coin looking—or rather—begging for men to come marry his daughters.
No one ever returned home with him.
And when her father died—her throat grew tight—cousin Irving would take possession of their home, and they didn’t have any place to go.
So what could be worse than being a mistress?
Any number of things.
Starvation, workhouses, joining a convent, no, that last one she’d save for a secondary plan if she couldn’t find a man of reasonable means to marry her. She could always apply for a job she supposed. Maybe she’d go to London after all and find work.
Tears pricked her eyes. “I’m sure I’d make a terrible mistress too. My only skill is with needle and thread.”
He didn’t laugh at her quip.
“Dance with me,” he said.
“I can’t dance with you.”
Because if I do, I’ll dream again. Of you, of this, and I’ll hope, the most dangerous temptation of all.